Inside Obama’s Classified Smartphone, Top-Secret P.D.A.

Posted on 26 January 2009. Filed under: AROUND SABAH | Tags: , , , , , , |

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President Obama is keeping his BlackBerry, according to the White House press office. While he’ll be able to keep in touch with some personal friends using the device, if he wants to do secret government business he’ll need one of two Windows CE smartphones: the Sectera Edge or the L3 Guardian.

The Edge and the Guardian are the result of an $18 million, NSA-sponsored program to develop a top-secret smart phone, according to Randy Siegel, Microsoft’s lead enterprise mobility strategist.

Most BlackBerrys and Windows Mobile devices can work with “sensitive, but unclassified” data, according to Tom Liggett, the Sectera Edge product manager at General Dynamics. Those smart phones work with the FIPS 140-2 standard, which encrypts both data traffic and voice calls to a certain extent. And there are a lot of government functions, even in war, that aren’t classified. In Iraq, for instance, FIPS 140-2-certified Windows Mobile devices are used for battle triage, roadside bomb detection, and even as sniper aids, Siegel said.

But about 300,000 Americans have access to a secret, controlled Internet called SIPRNet, the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network. What’s on there? It’s classified. And the Edge and the Guardian are the only smartphones that can tap into it.

“The BlackBerry device and the Windows Mobile devices currently are not cleared for SIPRNet communications,” Siegel said. “This is the type of communication that a General Petraeus is giving, or many State Department officials, or many DHS officials.”

To make voice calls, for instance, the Edge uses an encryption protocol called SCIP, the Secure Communications Interoperability Protocol. It runs on any of the four national cell-phone carriers’ – you can actually switch the cellular module out by hand – but the calls are encrypted end-to-end, so that they can only be decrypted by another SCIP phone.

All the data on the device is encrypted using “NSA Type 1 algorithms,” which are forbidden to be used by civilians, Liggett said. This is real spy-movie stuff.

The Edge runs Windows CE, not Windows Mobile. Windows CE is the underlying kernel of Windows Mobile, but the Edge has more secure applications lying on top than the standard Windows Mobile suite. It can still do most of the things Windows Mobile devices do, Liggett said, including push email with Microsoft Exchange servers, playing media through Windows Media Player and editing Microsoft Word documents. (Yes, the government uses Microsoft Exchange, apparently.) Defense department users wanted something that looked like their Windows PCs, Liggett said.

The Edge can also switch to an unclassified mode. How it does the trick is, apparently, classified. But by pressing a button, you can instantly call up entirely separate “classified” and “unclassified” systems. Each system has its own calendar, applications, data and voice calling. The system you aren’t using waits in the background, ready for action with the press of a button. That would prevent Obama from having to carry a separate BlackBerry to talk to his friends and family.

We can’t get an Edge in for review. You need a security clearance to request one. If you’ve got one, though, prices start at $3300 and head down from there for bulk purchases.

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Obama May Carry Top-Secret P.D.A.


Updated 5:50 p.m.: Removed references to the Freedom of Information Act, which does not apply to the President or his immediate staff.

Nobody’s saying anything official or on the record about this, but reports popping up all across the Web indicate that while President Obama may be able to keep a mobile phone/e-mail device while in office, that device may be something more exotic than a BlackBerry from Research in Motion.

(Cue James Bond theme.)

The nation’s e-mailer in chief may be carrying something called a Sectéra Edge, which is made by the military contractor General Dynamics (you know, the submarine people). The product description reads: “Developed for the National Security Agency’s Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device (SME PED) program, the Sectéra Edge is certified to protect wireless voice communications classified Top Secret and below as well as access e-mail and Web sites classified Secret and below.”

The Sectéra looks like most P.D.A.’s, and operates like one when in normal mode. But a press of a button on the front of the device engages “classified mode” (for added effect, the screen background turns red when this mode is activated). It works on GSM and CDMA networks (AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint support the device, according to the company’s Web site), and will be able to get on Wi-Fi networks sometime in the third quarter of this year. It operates on a Windows Mobile platform.

For there to be secure communications between two parties, both must have a device that conforms to the necessary encryption protocols. That can include portable units like the Edge, but also landline phones and computers. Mobile calls or e-mail messages between Mr. Obama and Michelle Obama’s civilian P.D.A. would most likely have to take place in nonsecure mode, as family members of the president rarely have the necessary security clearance to warrant such a device.

Another thing that makes the Sectéra Edge fairly thin on the ground: each unit costs $3,350. It is unclear if its price drops to $19.99 with a two-year contract, but it seems unlikely.

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